Executions ‘R’ Us
Pride in our state’s exceptional history and traditions related to the Old West may help explain Texans’ clinging to some practices that should be consigned to the state’s past. That includes the death penalty, which continues to be carried out more frequently in Texas than anywhere else in America.
In fact, this year Texas reversed course from the national trend it had been following and executed 13 people; which was more than the 12 executions that occurred in the rest of the United States. Seven people were put to death in Texas in both 2016 and 2017.
After nearly 18 years in prison and numerous appeals, Joseph Garcia was executed Dec. 4 at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Garcia was one of the “Texas Seven” inmates convicted of murder in the Christmas Eve 2000 slaying of a North Texas police officer during their escape attempt.
With 224 inmates currently on death row in Texas, a 25-year low, more executions appear certain to follow Garcia’s. Less certain is what those executions will accomplish other than removing those executed from society — a goal that could be achieved just as well and less expensively by life sentences.
The cost leading to an execution, including appeals and incarceration, easily exceeds $1 million; compared with less than $700,000 to keep an inmate in prison for 40 years.
Of course, money isn’t the most important reason for Texas to reconsider capital punishment. With DNA testing and other improved evidence collection methods, it is now indisputable that the right person isn’t always sentenced to death.
The Innocence Project says at least 162 inmates have been released from death row nationwide because they were wrongly convicted. The reasons range from mistaken eyewitness identification, official misconduct, and false or misleading forensic evidence.
A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that “approximately one out of every 24 prisoners” on death row nationwide between 1973 and 2004 was wrongly convicted.
Not even one death of an innocent person should be considered acceptable or the collateral damage of an imperfect criminal justice system. That imperfect system becomes even harder to defend when viewed through the lens of race, which shows the color of a defendant’s skin can determine whether he is sentenced to death.
All seven defendants sentenced to death in Texas this year were people of color. That’s no anomaly. In the past five years, more than 70 percent of death sentences in Texas have been imposed on people of color — and in particular, African Americans.
Blacks are less than 13 percent of the Texas population but 43 percent of the state’s death row inmates. Hispanics are 38 percent of the state population and 27 percent of those on death row.
The American Bar Association says “the disadvantages faced by low-income defendants” also play a role in who gets the death penalty. Since blacks are disproportionately poor in America, they are more likely to be represented by defense counsel with high caseloads, poor training, and inadequate resources.
A recent study in the Boston College Law Review said the discrepancy in how black defendants are treated in America’s courts is glaring. “White defendants are 25 percent more likely than black defendants to have their most serious initial charge dropped or reduced to a less severe charge,” the study said.
Prejudice shouldn’t be the difference in whether someone is put to death. Neither should a clumsy defense, mishandling of evidence, a mistaken eyewitness, or an overly zealous prosecutor with political ambitions — all of which have been factors in wrongful convictions.
The Supreme Court in 1972 ruled the death penalty unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment; only to reinstate it in a 1976 ruling by more conservative justices. Nonetheless, most states have abandoned the barbaric practice. Thirty-seven states have not had an execution in the past five years, and 31 of those states have not executed anyone in the past 10 years. Texas needs to join them.
Capital punishment is no deterrent to murder. Despite the high-profile serial-killer and mass-murder cases that get the most news coverage, homicides are more likely to result from personal conflicts involving people who know each other and aren’t thinking about facing a judge in a court of law. A date with a lethal injection needle isn’t on their minds.
No matter how or why a murderer killed someone, he should pay for his crime. Vengeance, however, should play no role in the outcome. Any vengeful satisfaction felt is fleeting. It will never fill the hole left in the hearts of a murder victim’s family and friends.